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County OKs Budget, Hears Complaints About Ripley Solar Project election commissioner

Some members of the County Legislature meet in Mayville.

The Chautauqua County Legislature has approved a property tax increase for county residents.

On Wednesday, the legislature voted 18 to 1 to approve the proposed budget for 2021. The new budget has a levy of $67,183,543 with a tax rate of $8.51 per $1,000 assessed valuation. Legislator Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan, was the sole lawmaker opposed to the budget.

Last month County Executive P.J. Wendel proposed a county budget for 2021 with a tax levy of $66,425,552, which is up 3% from 2020. His proposed budget had a tax rate of $8.41 per $1,000 assessed valuation, which was a 5 cent decrease. Instead of a decrease of 5 cents, the new budget has an increase of 5 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation.

During the legislature’s budget workshop, lawmakers made a number of changes, including lowering the projected amount of sales tax revenue and setting up a $500,000 contingency account. There were a number of minor changes as well, including restoring 4-H’s budget from having a $10,000 cut to only a $1,250 cut; restoring $10,000 cut from the county’s soil and water department and instead cutting $10,000 from the Lake Alliance; and adding a staff member to the county Department of Planning, using funds saved from the retirement of Planning Director Donald McCord; and restoring a position that was accidentally left off the county Health Department Budget.

The legislature during budget reviewed discussed cutting the proposed raises for county managers from 3% to 1.5% however the Audit and Control Committee backed off that proposal last week after receiving a number of complaints from county managers and the Managers Association.

Niebel said during the meeting he wasn’t opposed to the budget, however he did not want to authorize any budget increase, no matter how small.

“We do need a certain amount of money to run county government, but let’s not take any more money from the taxpayers than we absolutely have to,” he said.

He proposed lowering the newly created contingency account from $500,000 to $133,109, which would have eliminated any tax hike in 2021.

Legislator Charles Nazzaro noted the increase is only $5 for a $100,000 house in the county. “What we have to be cautious about is in 2021 when property taxes aren’t paid and other things don’t come to fruition, we’re going to have to go into our fund balance,” he said.

Legislator Lisa Vanstrom, R-Jamestown, agreed with Niebel, saying she did not want to “take one more penny out of a pocket out of our hardworking taxpayers.” She continued, “So many people have been suffering, going through extreme conditions and having major family challenges during this time … We have probably dealt with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people locally that are enduring some very hard times right now.”

Legislator Elisabeth Rankin, R-Jamestown, thanked Vanstrom for her comments, saying any increase in property taxes will hurt. “For some people it’s going to feel like it will push them over the edge,” she said. “We can’t send out stimulus checks, but we can avoid an additional increase in their taxes as a way of showing support to the residents of our county.”

When the time came to vote on Niebel’s proposal to lower the tax rate, the resolution failed, with only five legislators voting to amend the resolution, and 14 voting against it. After that vote failed, the full legislature revoted on original resolution, gaining the support of all legislators minus Niebel.

The budget now is sent back to the county executive for his final approval.

At the end of the meeting, there were nearly an hour and a half worth of comments. The comments were mostly on two topics –residents opposing the proposed solar project in South Ripley and Democrats stating either their support or opposition to the appointment of Luz Torres to the position of Democratic Commissioner of Elections.

The legislature did not have any formal action scheduled on the Ripley project. Members of the public urged the legislature to block any sort of Payment In Lieu Of Taxes agreement with the developer before the county Industrial Development Agency gets the chance to give final approval for the project.

For the appointment of Torres, last week the county’s Administrative Services gave its full support for her to take over the position currently held by Norman P. Green. On Wednesday, that resolution was pulled before the meeting began by the committee.

Green asked to speak before the meeting, but was told he was not permitted. He continued, but was told to wait until after the meeting. Nazzaro, who is a fellow Democrat, recommended having Green removed from the chamber if he continued to speak. Green seemed to mock Nazzaro for his response. “It would be the greatest privilege of my life to be removed from this legislature chamber. It would be the greatest privilege of my life,” he said, citing Torres’ skills and ability.

Several other Democrats spoke at the end of the meeting, some for Torres, while others who alleged that her appointment did not follow proper procedure from the county Democratic Party.

No legislator commented publicly on Torres appointment or the resolution being pulled.

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